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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Jesus curses the fig tree: One definitive example for those in denial about problems in the Gospels

I've been wanting to write a post on the story of Jesus cursing the fig tree for some time now.  I haven't had time or an occasion until now.  The stimulus was a series of uncharacteristically ill-conceived posts (see here, here, here here, and here) about how stories in 1 Samuel illustrate that supposed contradictory versions of Jesus's deeds and sayings in the Gospels are really reports of separate incidents.  At the outset I must acknowledge that Turretinfan never suggested that all claims of Gospel stories containing alleged contradictions can be resolved with his "separate incidents" solution, nor did he suggest that of the stories of the fig-tree cursing.  I just want to point out one example where that type of solution -- and every other used so far -- does not work.

I understand enough about the synoptic problem to be dangerous.  That is, it would be dangerous for me to propose a solution.  I'll leave that to the professionals.   But one does not need to be a New Testament scholar to understand that the synoptic Gospels, taken together, are problematic.  In fact, recognizing problems is fairly straightforward -- unless theological precommitments force you to deny the obvious.  I would argue that this curse plagues Turretinfan.

Specifically, the synoptic Gospels outline essentially the same story about Jesus, and yet in detail they sometimes present inconsistent, even contradictory, versions of the story.   Trouble is, accepting this as an accurate account of the situation puts one at odds with Christian orthodoxy's doctrine of Scripture.  According to this doctrine the Gospels tell us the historical truth about Jesus; they cannot err, and therefore they cannot be inconsistent with or contradict one another.  Therefore, there is no real problem with the Gospels, only with the rebellious, unbelieving human readers. 

This is a separate issue from the synoptic problem proper, which is concerned with the nature of the relationship between the synoptic Gospels.   Which Gospel was written first?  Where did the authors get their source material from?  How does one explain the patterns of similarities and differences in wording, order, and content?  None of these questions implies that the Gospels are anything less than 100% truthful in what they assert.

In the process of close investigation of the patterns of similarities and differences one finds the other problem.  This second problem pops up so often that it ends up playing a significant role in many of the proposed solutions to the synoptic problem.  So, which is it?  Do the claims of inconsistencies and contradictions built into the structure of many modern approaches to the Gospels tell us more about the readers than they do about the Gospels themselves?  Or, do these claims represent the "facts on the ground"  and those who deny them tell us more about themselves than they do about the Gospels?  Yes.  IMHO both are true to some extent.

But this post is not an attempt to establish the middle ground.  There are plenty of critics who discover problems in the Gospels that vanish as soon as one reads the text with a grain of sympathy and understanding.  Not all problems can be made to disappear that easily, and some won't go away at all.   The story of Jesus cursing the fig tree is a good illustration of the latter.  All the proposals to eliminate the problem posed by this story fail.  In the end we face two contradictory versions of the story. 

The two versions of the story can be found in Matthew 21:18-22 and Mark 11:12-14,22-25.  Many people have struggled with the ethics of Jesus's cursing of the tree -- and even more over the implied cursing of the Jewish nation.  However challenging that may be, I intend to ignore that issue.   My interest is in the chronology of the two versions.  Here are the salient differences:

Chronological Order
1. Temple cleansing
2. Overnight in Bethany
3. Cursing of fig tree
4. Disciples comment on the withered fig tree
1. Overnight in Bethany
2. Cursing of fig tree
3. Temple cleansing
4. Overnight in outside of Jerusalem
5. Disciples comment on the withered fig tree
Time the tree witheredImmediately after Jesus cursed itUnspecified but within a day
When the disciples heard the cursingOn the morning after the temple cleansingOn the morning before the temple cleansing
Who commented on the witheringdiscplesPeter
When the disciples saw the withered tree for the first timeBy implication of their comment, immediately after Jesus cursed it.About a day after Jesus cursed it.
Comment on disciples' frame of mindThey were amazedPeter remembered
What they said about it"How did the fig tree wither immediately?""Look, the fig tree you cursed has withered."

If we apply the type of solution suggested by Turretinfan, we would explain (away) these differences by supposing that Jesus cursed the fig tree twice or that he cursed two fig trees on separate occasions.   Neither of these solutions works well in this case.

Let's suppose Jesus cursed the fig tree twice on successive mornings.  Matthew's version of the story reflects only the second cursing and Mark's only the first.   The disciples' comment in Matthew seems odd; wouldn't they rather have asked what was different about the second cursing, or why it took two cursings to get the tree withered?  And if Peter had just heard Jesus curse the tree a second time, what is the point of Mark's mentioning that he remembered it?   Both stories make more sense if we suppose that only one cursing of the fig tree is in view.  But if there were really two cursings of the same tree, the stories don't represent the likely historical reality behind them very well.

Let's suppose, then, that Jesus cursed two different trees on successive mornings.  That means the disciples saw two withered fig trees the second morning, one that Jesus had cursed the day before and one that withered immediately after he cursed it.  Peter's comment applies to the first tree and the disciples' amazement applies to the second.   Each Gospel writer focused on the cursing of only one of the two trees.  It seems highly unlikely that if Matthew were written by one of the disciples and Mark was a precis of Peter's recollections that both of them would have forgotten or decided to leave out of the story the fact that Jesus cursed two fig trees on successive mornings and that the disciples saw both of them withered on the same day.  Was Jesus in the habit of performing such symbolic teaching acts repetetively on successive days?  From the surviving Gospel stories it seems not.  That would make this incident all the more noteworthy, but neither Gospel writer gives any hint that Jesus cursed fig trees twice.     

Another way to explain (away) the situation is to propose that one of the two versions has been dischronologized.  I found a couple of websites citing Gleason Archer on this, although the basic idea predates him big time.  Archer himself did not argue that there were two trees and/or two cursings.  Matthew simply relocated the first part of Mark's story so that it appears together with the second part.  But one could use this type of procedure to rescue the idea that there were two cursings of two different trees.  Perhaps one of the cursings took place later that week or during one of the earlier visits to Jerusalem recorded in the Gospel of John.

In a way I like this type of solution.  Why don't we try it on Genesis 1 and 2?  This could solve that sticky little problem of the story order of the creation of animals and Adam in Genesis 2 vs. the order in Genesis 1.  Rather than adopting the controversial pluperfect reading of Gen 2:19a, we can simply say that God actually created birds of the air and beasts of the field twice, once on days 5 and 6 before the creation of humans and once again in the garden on day 6 after the creation of Adam.   This solution makes 2:19 more chronologically consistent with 2:18 and 2:20-22.  Of course there are problems with the "all"s in 2:19, but hey, as Calvinists will point out, when does "all" really mean "every single one without exception?"

It seems to me that this case matches the situation of "similar stories about separate events" better than Matthew and Mark's stories of the fig tree cursing.  If  somebody really wants to argue that Jesus cursed two different fig trees they should be ready to accept that there were actually two instances of animals and birds being created.  The possibilities for this type of interpretation have barely been explored.  Harold Lindsell did some ground-breaking work along these lines in his explanation of Peter's six denials in The Battle for the Bible.   Among other things, this approach could lead to a new renaissance for the dispensationalist interpretation of prophecy.   I can hardly wait.

But what about the assertion (Archer, et. al.) that Matthew simply compressed Mark's two-stage story into a single account?  This is not a fair handling of Matthew's text.  Jesus curses the tree and it withers "immediately."  The disciples see it and wonder how it withered "immediately."  This is not dischronologization.  The narrative chronology is part of the point of the story.  And if you take the story seriously as history, then you have to take the chronology of the story seriously as history, i.e., the cursing, withering and commentary happened "immediately" after one another.    There are perfectly good words in Koine Greek for "a short time later" or "soon thereafter."  παραχρῆμα is not one of them.  It means "immediately,"  "right away."   If the commenters adopting this view were correct, we could expect Mark's Peter to also point out that the fig tree withered "immediately" when he saw it the next day.   After all, a fig tree withering in 24 hours is pretty quick! 

A straightforward reading of either Gospel leads one to place the cursing(s) in a specific chronological context.   Just because that context causes us problems doesn't mean we get to discount or ignore it.  If Matthew's or Mark's chronological framework for this story is not intended to teach us when Jesus cursed the fig tree relative to the cleansing of the temple and the disciples' realization that the tree had withered, I'd like someone to explain how they can tell the difference between chronologies that can be ignored and chronologies (e.g., Genesis 1) that can't be ignored without threat of church discipline. 

In conclusion there is no way to make Mark and Matthew's versions of this story cohere chronologically.  That datum should be combined with many other indications that the Gospel stories do not always agree with one another.  This is a starting point for understanding what the Gospels are, how they came about, what they are trying to do, and how successful they are at doing those things.


Anonymous said...

Ok Dough,

what's up with this charge:

" ... uncharacteristically ill-conceived posts ... "?

Is your article a counter premise for it and the conflicting Gospel accounts of things that Jesus did when He was with His own?

I would proffer something from John's Gospel that could be noted? Since it wasn't I will note it, here:

Joh 20:24 Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came.
Joh 20:25 So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord." But he said to them, "Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe."
Joh 20:26 Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you."
Joh 20:27 Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe."
Joh 20:28 Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!"
Joh 20:29 Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."
Joh 20:30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book;
Joh 20:31 but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.


Joh 21:21 When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, "Lord, what about this man?"
Joh 21:22 Jesus said to him, "If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!"
Joh 21:23 So the saying spread abroad among the brothers that this disciple was not to die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he was not to die, but, "If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?"
Joh 21:24 This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true.
Joh 21:25 Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.

What is your intent then about the article?

Is it a demonstration of what? Is it your ability to understand more correctly than TurretinFan about seeming conflicting stories or something else?

I am not implying any nefarious motive, however, one can come to that reasoning soon enough.

What I would ask then is for you to take up the fig tree story Luke tells? I am interested in your understanding of that story seeing it is storytelling about the active dynamic reality of the Kingdom of God here and now which purpose and grace is to assist us to live with God now on earth not under His wrath or cursed.

Dean Dough said...


Welcome! Thanks for commenting! All I meant by "uncharacteristically ill-conceived" is that Turretinfan's posts are usually well thought out. It seems to me that he hadn't thought carefully enough before he started this series.

I purposely avoided Luke's fig tree parable because on the surface it appears to be a "separate incident" from that behind the stories in Matthew and Mark. Had I brought that story into the discussion it would have complicated everything unnecessarily. Matthew and Mark's stories on the surface appear to be about the same incident. If we adopted Turretinfan's proposed solution, we would have to say that Jesus either cursed two different fig trees on different days or cursed the same fig tree twice. I don't think this type of solution works in this case. In fact, I don't think any "solution" works if the idea is to remove the inconsistency between Matthew and Mark's stories. The inconsistency can't be removed reasonably. That is the point of my post in a nutshell.

The story of Jesus and Thomas raises its own problems. If you're interested, you can read some comments I made on this story here.

Anonymous said...


Would you agree that what Jesus cursed in the parable was "Himself"?

And a question occurs to me to ask, just how many times do you suppose Jesus from the beginning went up to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem?

My point about both the Thomas item, John 20 and then John's item, John 21 is the fact that though we know, reasonably, that the disciples were together as a whole on some occasions, there were other times when they were not.

My guess is the two times we see Jesus literally cursed the fig tree were at different times going up into the temple.

Now the question, I suppose, will be, then explain the cleansing of the Temple?

Which then brings me to this:

Ecc 3:9 What gain has the worker from his toil?
Ecc 3:10 I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with.
Ecc 3:11 He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man's heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.
Ecc 3:12 I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live;
Ecc 3:13 also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil--this is God's gift to man.

As you probably gather, I am not of that opinion about TurretinFan, as you are?

I haven't found him to be as flippant as you suppose, especially with the caricature "uncharacteristically ill-conceived".

Dean Dough said...


No, I don't believe the fig tree in Luke's parable refers to Jesus, although I give you credit for thinking so highly of Jesus.

As for the idea that Matthew and Mark are talking about separate fig tree cursings on different visits to the temple, you can't make that work. You will have to rewrite one or both of Matthew and Mark to get the chronology to work out.